Teachers Memorialize Grandfathers’ World War II Service, Retrace Steps across Western Front to Engage Students With History

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Fund for Teachers grant recipients return to battlefields, follow in grandfathers footsteps to personalize history for Chicago students. Encouraging students to interview family members and find their own connections with history also part of strategy to make history relevant.

Fund for Teachers
For a history teacher, there is nothing equal to standing in the footsteps of what came before. These are the experiences that make history come alive in the classroom.

Although she teaches AP American History at Chicago's Lane Tech College Prep, Julie Caracci only became passionate about the subject after hearing her grandfather's account of World War II as an Army soldier. She believed that making history personal for her students could ignite a similar interest in the past. Caracci enlisted the participation of Amanda Malstrom, the school's AP European History teacher (whose grandfather also served in the Army during World War II). After the last day of school, this teaching team deploys overseas to the war's Western Front, retracing family ties to more fully engage students with this period of history.

The odyssey was funded by a $7,600 grant from Fund for Teachers.

“Forging connections between the past and present is one of the most important functions of a history class,” wrote the teachers in their Fund for Teachers grant proposal. “We designed this experience to encourage students’ interest in their own families and help them discover ways in which they are also connected to history.”

Caracci and Malstrom will undertake a two-week research project across Europe. Stops in Paris include the Museum of Military History at Les Invalides, two French World War II memorials, The Liberty Flame and the Arc de Triomphe. Continuing on to Normandy and Omaha Beach, the team arrives in Bastogne, Belgium, to study the Battle of the Bulge. The American Cemetery and General Patton’s grave highlight the Luxembourg leg of their fellowship, which culminates in Germany to study the rise of the Nazi Party. Munich, Nuremburg and Berlin complete the teachers’ trek documenting history and gaining glimpses into their grandfathers’ experiences.

In addition to enhancing curricula with artifacts and anecdotes, the teachers plan to help students find personal connections with history from resources most often overlooked – family members. This fall, students will develop and conduct oral history interviews to produce knowledge for the classroom. Relatives with particularly compelling stories will be invited to class as part of a “lecture series.”

“Students can identify hundreds of terms and events, but they struggle to put them all together in a coherent narrative,” said Caracci. “All this memorization does nothing to combat our students’ belief that history has no connection to their teenage lives. We want to show students how the past informs the present and model how to make personal connections with history.”

Additional teachers pursuing World War II-related themes with Fund for Teachers fellowships include:

  • Sherryl Johnson, Larkin Elementary School in Owasso, OK, who will research in Austria and Switzerland the pre-World War II kinder-transport rescue of 10,000 children from the Nazis to encourage and inspire students struggling to overcome the deterioration of their social/family structures;
  • Susan Aronstein, Northbrook Middle School in Houston, TX, who will visit concentration camps and museums in Germany and France, interviewing individuals who hid Jewish families during World War II, to help lead students in a discussion on prejudice and the dangers of bullying and hatred;
  • Laura Heikkila, Longfellow Middle School in Norman, OK, who will research World War II throughout Eastern Europe, gathering relevant non-fiction texts that aid in the creation of an Eastern European Cultural Primary Resources Binder for use in special education and general education classrooms; and,
  • Phillip Reed and Rachel Povlacs, Carroll High School in Ozark, AL, who will examine how World War II affected European communities as expressed through textual evidence, architecture, and artistic samplings to inspire students’ appreciation of the past, in their present, through a new collaborative social sciences/fine arts curricula.

Each fall, Fund for Teachers invites preK-12 educators to submit their ideas for relevant professional development. Since 2001, Fund for Teachers has invested more than $20 million in the development of over 5,000 preK-12 teachers as lead learners for America’s classrooms. Teachers conduct field research, volunteer with community organizations, master new skills or deepen their understanding of a subject. Every pursuit of new knowledge increases teachers’ competency, confidence, and excitement about their commitment to teaching. Most importantly, these odysseys culminate in broadened perspectives and honed skills that directly impact students, classrooms and school communities.

“For a history teacher, there is nothing equal to standing in the footsteps of what came before,” said Malstrom. “These are the experiences that make history come alive in the classroom. Furthermore, we believe strongly in being lifelong learners and modeling that passion for our students."

About Fund for Teachers
Fund for Teachers enriches the personal and professional growth of teachers by recognizing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the world that impact their students and school communities. For more information, visit fundforteachers.org.

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Carrie Pillsbury
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